The partnership with the Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse
The Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse has been partnering the restoration of art works in Europe, Asia and the United States for over 20 years, in the desire to play an active role in ensuring that museum holdings are preserved and can so be passed on to future generations. It has already sponsored over a dozen projects in Switzerland, benefitting the conservation of major works by Max Ernst, Mattia Preti, Auguste Rodin, Bram van Velde and Paolo Veronese. The Fondation Beyeler is delighted to be able to restore three key pieces in its collection with the support of the Fondation BNP Paribas Suisse. Over a period of three years, our team of conservators and curators will devote themselves to the following works: Henri Rousseau’s painting Le lion, ayant faim, se jette sur l’antilope (1898/1905), Fernand Léger’s painting Le passage à niveau (1912), and the sculpture discussed here, Max Ernst’s The King Playing with the Queen (1944).
The King Playing with the Queen numbers among Max Ernst‘s most important sculptural inventions and represents one of the highlights of the Fondation Beyeler sculpture collection. The magnificent plaster model of The King Playing with the Queen housed in the Fondation Beyeler was created in the highly productive year of 1944, when Max Ernst was living in exile in America. The artist later cast several versions of the sculpture in bronze.
The work shows a horned male figure who is seated at a chessboard and is in the process of playing a move. The figure – the King of the chess game – calls to mind the Minotaur of Greek mythology, a monster who was half-man, half-beast. Max Ernst has taken the chess piece from the board and turned him into a player. The King reaches forward with his right hand either to protect the Queen or to stop her from advancing, while clutching a second piece in his left hand. The demonic King evidently plays with his subjects according to his own rules – the game is playing itself.
Max Ernst had already made a series of figural sculptures a decade earlier, while still living in France. These sculptures, produced from 1934 onwards, present themselves as Surrealist works “with a symbolic function”. The painters, sculptors and assemblage artists of Surrealism aimed to create freely-invented images and objects out of a body of visions and myths.
Max Ernst’s starting-point when making his sculptures was often not the modeling or sculpting of a material. Instead, the artist assembled his sculptures out of modular, individually cast stereometric forms that he found in everyday objects such as flowerpots and milk bottles. Thus Max Ernst continued to pursue the principle of the readymade even in his sculpture.
Objectives of the restoration project
1. A first objective is to build up a detailed picture of the structural composition of Max Ernst’s plaster sculpture, in order to be able to reconstruct each stage of its complex construction. 2. A second objective is to arrive at a better understanding of the esthetic appearance of the work, and how this appearance has arisen, by means of an in-depth analysis of the sculpture’s paint surface. 3. A third objective is to gauge more accurately the fragility of the work with regard firstly to its mobility inside and outside the collection and secondly to the display conditions best suited to ensuring its stability and conservation.
Documentation of the current condition of the art work Since the opening of the Fondation Beyeler in 1997, The King Playing with the Queen has only been moved within the building with the greatest care and has never left the museum. All requests from other institutions wishing to exhibit the sculpture on loan have been turned down. The primary reason for this is the fragile nature of the plaster medium, which has already suffered chips and cracks. In the case of Max Ernst, we are furthermore looking at a sculptor who used an unusual method of construction. Old photographs of the artist’s studio show that Ernst pieced his sculptures together out of individual components. We must therefore ask whether he proceeded in the same manner when creating the present sculpture. The sculpture’s painted surface is also noticeably inhomogeneous in color. Its patchy appearance is the product of various historical layers of paint that have modified the original white of the plaster.
Scientific investigation Within the framework of the restoration project, the interior structures of the plaster model (e.g. reinforcements with wire, mesh and/or rods) will be analyzed and documented with the aid of scientific methods of investigation. These will include diagnostic scanning techniques such as X-ray and UV fluorescence. The painted surface of the plaster will also be the focus of technical analyses, which are intended to shed light on the material composition of the paint layers and the historical order in which they were applied.
Research Archival research and the study of comparative works will be used to gather detailed information about the plaster sculpture’s technique and process of manufacture.
On the basis of these preliminary investigations, we shall be able to determine whether more extensive conservation or restoration measures are necessary.